Renewal perfectly articulates Billy Strings’ wunderkind facility with both traditional and progressive bluegrass bona fides.
Bluegrass remains the most doggedly conservative — from a formalist perspective, though there’s a whole separate conversation about its political sensibilities, too — genre of popular music, one that largely champions adherence to decades-old tropes. While there have been insurgents — Chris Thile, most notably, either solo or in his various bands — there has rarely been a wunderkind that both progressive and traditionalist Bluegrass fans have embraced to the extent that Billy Strings has been. On his third solo album, Renewal, Strings looks to build on his reputation as one of the most accomplished technicians of his generation and to bring a certain level of swagger to Bluegrass that might broaden his audience without sacrificing the top-notch quality of his work. Renewal is a triumph, then, because it accomplishes both of those goals.
“Heartbeat of America” and “Hide and Seek” showcase Strings’ phenomenal guitarwork with nimbly-plucked figures that begin as standard Bluegrass riffs before taking some unexpected, proggy digressions. In his already legendary live shows, Strings and his backing pickers view song structures as a mere suggestion of something they might perform, so it’s critical that they’re building from a sturdy enough foundation. To that end, the bones of “Know It All” and “Hellbender” are quite good, indeed: Don’t tell the genre purists, but “This Old World” even has a killer lyrical hook, while “Nothing’s Working” is impressive for a morose lyrical bent that would play better to fans of Billie Eilish than Bill Monroe. What makes Strings such a riveting, generational talent is his capacity for honoring the conventions established by the likes of Monroe while embracing a perspective that is very much of-the-moment. Strings isn’t limited by the Bluegrass genre because he rejects the core belief that genre has to be limiting, and Renewal finds him entirely comfortable with all that he’s capable of.
Published as part of Album Roundup — September 2021 | Part 3.